What Do You Have To Do To Get a Bottle of Wine Around Here?

Why you still can't buy wine with your groceries in New York

People in New York and other big cities love to ridicule places in flyover country, like Kansas or Utah, for their "blue laws"—arcane statutes that can make it tough for the thirsty to get a drink.

Just last month, Utah finally dropped its legendary "private club" rules that, for decades, had made it tough to get a cocktail in that state, though its liquor stores will continue to be closed on Sundays. Kansas still has 25 "dry" counties, where it's illegal to serve alcohol by the glass.

But New Yorkers have little reason to feel superior. New York's own liquor laws include one that doesn't seem to make much sense.

On 14th Street, Trader Joe's wines are kept in a separate storefront, for no good reason at all.
Sam Lewis
On 14th Street, Trader Joe's wines are kept in a separate storefront, for no good reason at all.

While you can get a drink of just about any kind of fermented beverage in thousands of establishments of all sorts in this city, at just about any time of the day or night, there's one thing you still cannot do in New York: pick up a bottle of wine while you're buying groceries.

Perhaps the most graphic result of that particular statute is plainly visible on 14th Street near Union Square.

Trader Joe's, the California grocery chain that made its reputation largely on selling inexpensive wines—the firm's sales of the Charles Shaw wine "Two Buck Chuck" became so famous that it inspired a New Yorker profile—was required to have two separate storefronts on 14th Street when it opened its doors in March 2006.

Unlike shoppers in the other parts of the country where Trader Joe's has stores, you can't pick up a bottle of Chardonnay while you're scoring Mandarin Orange Chicken or a package of Nuts About Antioxidants Trek Mix. For that, you have to go next door, where Trader Joe's sells vino in a separate space, simply to get around the New York law.

Two storefronts, sitting side by side. Clearly, for no good reason at all.

The thing is, New York's blue law isn't about lingering religious attitudes about alcohol, the way it is in places like Utah.

New York's grocery store wine ban is purely about political power.

In the last six months, the state's supermarkets mounted another sustained political campaign to repeal the wine ban—this time, enlisting the help of a supportive governor. But once again, a powerful group of New Yorkers succeeded in blocking the measure.

Who was it that blocked wine sales in grocery stores? Our own version of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union? Or some other association of uptight Carrie Nations?

No. It was the state's liquor stores and their lobbyists.

And the way your friendly corner hooch seller continues to keep wine drinkers from grabbing a bottle of red at the same time that they're picking up pasta, vegetables, and a pound of ground round is a classic lesson in how lobbyists, political strategists, and a tweaking of the truth control what gets done in the state of New York.

When Governor David Paterson declared his support for supermarkets and added a wine ban repeal to his 2009 budget package, backers of the measure believed they finally had a chance to get it through the state legislature.

But on January 28, just as the bill had reached a point of serious consideration in Albany, a previously unknown group calling itself "The Last Store on Main Street" suddenly appeared on the scene, circulating press releases opposing the measure.

The coalition showed off a sophisticated website and a large group of supporters that included various local and statewide liquor store associations and distributors. And it had somehow also enlisted some wineries to support its cause.

The group argued that the measure would "kill jobs" and ruin mom-and-pop liquor stores across the state, and it claimed that the bill would not raise anything close to the $160 million in state tax revenue claimed by its supporters.

"The Last Store is a coalition of wine retailers from around the state," says Wendi Leggitt, the group's spokeswoman. "These are one of the last remaining independent businesses in the state."

Leggitt works for Mercury Public Affairs, a powerful political consultancy partnered by ex–Pataki administration officials. They also employ ex–Democratic pols including former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. Leggitt was also the contact person for Mercury's political action committee, which doles out tens of thousands of dollars each year in campaign contributions to elected officials and political party organizations.

Leggitt's boss, Michael McKeon, also spoke on behalf of the Last Store coalition. He served as a top aide to Pataki, and worked on the former governor's political campaigns.

In an e-mail to its members, which was obtained by the Voice, Jeff Saunders, the head of the Last Store and a lobbyist who works for the Retailers Alliance Foundation, described the group's strategy: "There will never be an unanswered press release from a politician, a

supermarket groupie raging about how great it would be, or . . . a newspaper reporter that thinks she knows better," Saunders wrote. "We answer the media when it needs answering—and not all press needs answering, by the way—and we continue to support all those that have supported us and go after the people that haven't supported us . . . and turn them around!"

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